Quarrel is a game that's had something of a tumultuous journey to the Xbox Live Arcade, with more than its fair share of bumps, twists and turns along the way. You see, the problem is, nobody plays word games anymore – or at least, that's what the majority of publishers think, who all turned down Quarrel, a crazy little Scrabble/Risk hybrid that's finally seen its release on the Xbox Live Arcade. In all, it took the people behind the game two years, and a major scaling down of their studio before someone finally saw the word game's potential. Now, we don't know about you, but we're quite partial to a word game or two (or several thousand if we dare to even set foot near Family Game Night's Boggle) – so needless to say, we were quite excited when Quarrel finally made it onto the Xbox Live Arcade. Boo to you, major publishers.
Quarrel is a bit of an unusual game – it's a strange hybrid between Scrabble's word-making and Risk's territory conquering, that actually works better than it sounds. Basically, an island is divided into an equal number of squares for each player, and a number of 'troops' are dealt evenly. You then take it in turns to attack each other, move troops around or just defend your current squares. Battles take the form of a 'word-off', called a 'Quarrel', where it's a race between you and your opponent to make the best word from the selection of eight letters you're given, but with one restriction – the maximum number of letters you can use depends on the number of people you have on your square; six men lets you do a six letter word, three lets you do a three letter word and so on. Win a battle, and you steal the square from your opponent, but if you loose, you'll lose the majority of your troops – either in battle, or as prisoners taken by your opponent.
So without further ado, it's time to settle a few old scores. For starters, Ninjas (20 points) beat pirates (10 points), thanks to the valuable J. Words (12 points) definitely do speak louder than actions (8 points) – so take that, old proverb-y thing. Zombies (25 points)are pretty much unstoppable, especially when compared to plants (9 points) – and thank god proper nouns are banned, otherwise ZZ Top would rule the Quarrel-ing world with a whopping 29 points...
Unlike Scrabble, however, in Quarrel you don't have all the time in the world to deliberate your decision – you have a seriously short time limit in which to form the best word you can. It adds a sense of urgency and sheer panic as it beeps at you and the only thing you can see is fq – which isn't even a word... If you think there's a chance you won't make a very good word with the limited number of troops you have – for example, your two people against their seven, you'll sometimes, providing you've earnt it, have an extra backup person you can call in for such emergencies, bolstering your army and making coming up with a decent word a bit easier.
At just 400 Microsoft Points (about £3.40), Quarrel is nothing short of a bargain. There's not a lot you can get for that much these days, with the whole slew of 1200 Microsoft Point games of recent months – in fact, even an add on for one of those games usually costs more than 400 Microsoft Points, let alone an entire Arcade Game. As the game's been designed to be played in multiplayer over Xbox Live, the low price point makes sense - it's a lot easier to convince your friends to shell out the £3.40 than it is a tenner. Colour us excited; we love a bargain.
In the multiplayer mode, up to four people can fight it out over Xbox Live, and things can get quite heated if all the players are of a similar sort of ability. However, if there are one or two players who are better than the rest, or if you find you tend to panic when faced with a deadline, unfortunately, the game doesn't do much to try and even the playing field, and those less linguistically proficient (or those who're just better at spotting words) will soon be sitting on the sidelines watching the remaining parties duke it out. While it is a shame that there's no option for local everyone-on-the-sofa multiplayer, you can kind of see why they decided to leave it out – you'd be able to see what words your opponents were making too easily, with more scope for cheating.
Sadly, the mutliplayer mode does seem to have a fair few flaws – at times it can seem remarkably unfair and unbalanced. Whoever gets the first turn seems to be at a distinct advantage, and can take over the majority of the board on their first go. From our experience, it's also entirely possible to wipe out an opponent before they even get round to their turn, as the first player, by organising their troops strategically, can stack the deck in their favour, ensuring they have the numerical advantage during each Quarrel. You'd think that having more territories would make your troops more spread out, so there's less men on each square, potentially making them easier to take, but somehow it rarely seems to work like that, and as your opponent starts taking territory, it instead marks the beginning of a long, slow slide to your doom.
With a few customisable options, it would have been a lot easier to tweak things to give everyone a fair chance - particularly if you could remove, or at least extend the time limit when playing with people you know. In single player, it doesn't seem too bad, as you're largely playing against quite dense computer opponents, but once you move onto real people – particularly if they're a lot better than you – the time-limit doesn't seem anywhere near long enough to collect your thoughts, yet alone bash out a winning word. And in my case, as someone who is much less au fait with controllers, there's barely enough time to enter a word that's longer than about six letters before you start to run dangerously low on time, let alone experiment a bit.
Having the ability to add a few handicaps to the better players would have made the games a damn sight fairer too, seeing as we were often playing a game comprised of two serious word-Gods, and two less talented players, who'd get slaughtered before it had even got round to their turn. Just having the ability to grant a few extra troops to the poorer players, or let them start off with a stock of backups to call in could make the games much fairer, and more fun for everyone involved.
For the times when your friends are busy doing other things, there is a funky single-player mode to go through, with quite a variety of modes to play in. First there's 'Domination', a series of regular Quarrel games against increasingly difficult computer-controlled opponents, which sees you trying your best to conquer all the squares. Then there's Showdown, where you're battling head to head against harder and harder opponents – the 'masters' of the Quarrel-ing world on your journey to be the top... word-making-person. On the subject of the computer-controlled opponents, you'll start off against poor simple Dwayne who's rather hopeless, and move up the ranks to some of the crazily good opponents, like Kali, who appears to be an anagram machine of sorts – and as such, is rather hard to beat. Particularly when she replaces one of your online friends when they leave the match, and precedes to whoop you quite badly.
And finally, there's 'Challenges', where they seem to have filed just about every other variation they could come up with, creating a firm Everybody Plays favourite, in part because the strict time limits of the other modes are completely removed, giving you oodles of time to come up with the best word you can. With four different variations, each with three levels, there's a fair few to keep you busy – they could even add extra ones as downloadable extras down the line, if they so desired (although how likely that is is another matter).
First up are the 'Trailblazing' levels, where you need to link as many consecutive wins together as possible to blaze a trail across as much of the board as possible in one turn. With every territory you take, you'll leave one of your troops behind, meaning the deck starts to get stacked ever more against you as you go through ten or more consecutive Quarrels to get the gold medal, which is no mean feat to say the least. Luckily, you'll be able to draft in a backup troop from time to time to bolster the numbers, but it's still pretty challenging stuff. Next comes a series of 'Comeback' levels, in which you have just one square and need to try to claw back as many squares as you can in a single turn – which, when its put like that, isn't actually all that different to the trailblazing levels, really... There's also the 'Colossal Conflicts' levels, where you need to win as many eight versus eight battles as possible – and as eight is the maximum number of troops you can have, you'll want to try and make as many of the anagrams as you can to win. We also discovered that the first of these levels called 'Battle Of The Giants' against Caprice and Damien is an awesome place to try for the 'Omniscience' achievement, for finishing a level with a perfect 200 point Word IQ score – make three anagrams in a row on this level, and you'll get it. The final challenge type is the one where you need to 'Procure Prisoners', where you need to take as many prisoners as possible – by going against opponents where you're at a disadvantage in terms of numbers. So if you have four troops and Damien has six, if you win, you'll acquire two extra people off him as prisoners – this mode requires some serious strategising though, to make sure you're always fighting against armies with a disadvantage.
Even though it has flaws, at just 400 Microsoft Points (about £3.40), there's still plenty of reason to invest in Quarrel – especially as there are so few other games like it on the Xbox Live Arcade (sadly). Despite it's mainly multiplayer-centric design, which can be quite fun with the right crowd of people, the single player, particularly the challenges, are awesome for when you fancy some alone time.